There are plenty of Mature-rated games. But look past the killing and the cursing and you’ll see that many Mature-rated games are anything but. Catherine is an exception, the rare Mature-rated title that tackles a truly mature theme – infidelity – in a thought-provoking and unusual way.
If you’re a gamer, you’ve likely heard about Catherine. Whether you read the somewhat skewed early impressions or the more recent glowing reviews, Catherine is probably not the game you think it is. It doesn’t help that early screens of the game played up the sultry, eponymous co-star of the game. If nothing else, Catherine is unique: a puzzle game with fast, tense pacing and a well-developed storyline that has something to say.
Catherine is a hard game to describe, so I recommend downloading the free demo that hit the PlayStation Store last week. Shortly after the demo landed, Aram Jabbari from publisher and developer Atlus dropped by to speak with us and show us a deeper dive into the strange world of Catherine. I focused my talk on questions that the demo didn’t answer.
Many of Atlus’ biggest hits – including recent entries in the Persona series – have been on the PS2. So in making the jump to PS3, Catherine is a milestone for the Atlus team. “Not only is this the first Atlus-developed HD current-gen game,” said Jabbari, “it also happens to be the first current-gen game from the Shin Megami Tensei team, the Persona team. The composer, the character designer, and a number of others have worked on Persona 3 and Persona 4. It was directed by Katsura Hashino, the director of Persona 4. So Catherine is basically the Atlus all-star team’s first current-gen project, and one of the more unique games that the company’s ever created.”
PlayStation Blog: How would you categorize this game? Anime-puzzle-adult-dating sim?”
Aram Jabbari, Atlus: There are several genres that come up. I’ve even seen some people refer to this as an RPG, but we don’t really consider that accurate. A dating sim traditionally entails the goal of finding some significant other, and that’s not really what the focus of the game is. We call it an action/adventure-puzzle game. Probably more of an adventure-puzzle game, but we don’t want people to dismiss how frantic and visceral the puzzle sequences can be. In a lot of ways, it does feel like a platformer, and in a lot of ways there are elements that are more like what you’d find in an action game than in a puzzle game. The core of the gameplay are these tower nightmares, but the adventure element is a huge part as it is a story-driven game.
PSB: How much control do you have over that story?
Atlus: That’s a tough question to answer. The story itself unfolds the same — it’s the ending that changes. Vincent has a lot of moments where the camera zooms in on him and a meter will appear. Based on where you land on that scale, his inner thoughts will be different, which hints at the ending.
Vincent carries an interactive mobile phone with him in the bar scenes, and can reply to both of his love interests in ways that affect that morality meter. He’ll face additional judgement in the confessional booths that lie in-between the nightmare sections, answering questions such as “Are you more afraid of being with people, or being alone?” Interestingly, your answers don’t just affect the game’s morality meter: they’re also compared to the answers of other players, anonymously, via PSN. But the meter isn’t tracking good versus evil, or right versus wrong. Aram described it as “law and chaos meter,” meaning “how selfish you are versus how altruistic you are.”
PSB: What’s up with that Golden Playhouse overlay you see on screenshots for the game?
Atlus: Golden Playhouse is kind of like a Saturday morning theatre, with a bit of a Twilight Zone vibe: we’re following this guy’s life and what’s going to happen. Trish is the host of that, and she intros us to Vincent, and is also the mechanism by which the game sends you texts to let you know that you’ve unlocked certain things outside of the game.
PSB: How many hours of gameplay are in Catherine?
Atlus: I was telling people eight to 12 hours, but then Phil Kollar from Game Informer comes to me and tells me it took him 14 hours. So eight to 12 is what we’re saying, but eight to 16 is more of what we’re seeing. If you’re actually invest the time and really experience the story, it’s definitely over 12 hours.
PSB: Was this game’s localization process any different than usual?
Atlus: Yes and no. I think there were a lot more cultural challenges. The game was actually written to take place in the States. A lot of fans say it takes place in Chicago, and that’s not really the case. It’s supposed to take place in an undefined American city. So in that sense, the developers did a lot to make it authentic and culturally, there wasn’t a lot to do. But our localizers talk about the challenges that lie in its realness. The characters interactions with each other – some of it is tongue-in-cheek – but most of it is supposed to be real human interaction. And there’s some dialogue things that will come up, including references and jokes, so our localizers go the extra mile. Our localizers say: “it’s not translating the definition, it’s translating the intent.” So a lot of care is taken to find that. Even though the game is so bizarrely unique, visually, it actually I don’t think it was as dramatic a localization effort as one might think.
Something you won’t see in the demo are the scenes that take place in the town’s bar, the Stray Sheep. These sections are completely optional; you can just head right for the door and back into the game-y world of Vincent’s nightmares. It’s worth poking around, though. The bar sequences flesh out the story, as you can chat with your friends and other barflies, play an old-school arcade game and learn some interesting trivia whenever you finish your drink. If nothing else, after playing Catherine I know a lot more about sake and the history of prohibition as it relates to cocktails now. Getting Vincent to toss back a couple beverages is actually encouraged, as it speeds up his movement in the nightmare sessions.
About that gameplay – it’s tough. Really tough. IGN’s Jim Reilly, a two-time Platinum Trophy earner in Atlus’ notoriously difficult Demon’s Souls, thinks Catherine has it beat. Having played through most of the game, I can safely recommend playing it on Easy, at least the first time. But the challenge is rewarded every time you escape the nightmare, and get a little bit more of the story. In fact, Catherine’s engrossing story is what propels you through the game’s myriad challenges, even when the going gets tough. Which it will!
Catherine will be out on PS3 this Tuesday for $59.99. In true Atlus tradition, there’s also a bonkers collector’s edition that includes a pair of Vincent’s boxers. Go get ‘em, tiger.